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Wisconsin winters have been getting warmer, then came this year's strong El Niño

Katie Thoresen

The current forecast has temperatures getting above freezing for the next week.

It’s unwelcome news for those that haven’t been able to participate in as many snow and ice sports as they normally would this time of year.

The above normal temperatures and below average snowfall was predicted this winter due to a strong El Nino.

We’ve had El Nino winters before, but many people WXPR has spoken to in recent weeks can’t remember a winter like this one.

Every week since Christmas, WXPR has had at least one story about how our lack of snow has meant change of plans for a winter-related organization or event.

The decision to cancel the SISI Ski Fest in Ironwood planned for January 6th.

The trail conditions on the day SISU Ski Fest decided to cancel its cross-country ski race in Ironwood.
SISU Ski Fest
The trail conditions on the day SISU Ski Fest decided to cancel its cross-country ski race in Ironwood.

“On that day, we actually had zero amount of snow on the ground, we were looking at bare ground, so it was pretty hard to imagine that turning around in just a few days,” said Jackie Powers, SISU Ski Fest Race Director.

The majority of snowmobile trails in northern Wisconsin have been unable to open weeks past their usual start date.

“It's having a huge negative impact. The dealerships that are trying to sell snowmobiles, they're bursting at the seams with inventory that isn't moving. And just all of the motels and the gas stations and restaurants, bars and whatnot that expect to have this time of year be hopping with snowmobilers, it's hurting them,” Mark McDonald from the Board of Directors for the Northwoods Riders Snowmobile Club in Tomahawk.

The MECCA Winter Fest in Iron County switched to virtual races because of poor trail conditions on its in-person race day.

“I don't remember a winter like this. You know, last year we probably had 75 inches of snow already. And you know, last season, Mecca grooming teams went out 98 times during the course of the winter. This year, we've only been out four times,” said MECCA volunteer Mike Shouldice.

The City of Ironwood, which normally has seen more than 100 inches of snowfall by now, has had less than 30 inches of snow.

“I've lived here all my life. I've never seen a winter like this and I'm 70 years old,” said Jerry Nezworski, president and trail boss of the Gogebic Range Trail Authority.

The lack of snow and warm temperatures have created less than ideal conditions for winter sports this year.

This was predicted, but recent El Niño winters haven’t been as extreme as this one leaving many to wonder if we’re also feeling the effects of climate change.

“It's getting harder to disentangle what's the cause of a warm winter anymore. Is it El Nino? Or is it just the long-term warming due to climate change?” said Steve Vavrus, the director of the Wisconsin State Climatology Office.

He says climatologists would more or less infer whether an extreme weather event was possibly linked to climate change. But technology has allowed us to get a better answer.

“This kind of attribution science, it's called, has become much more sophisticated in recent years. Nowadays, people run computer climate models using two different scenarios, one with the observed increase in greenhouse gas concentrations, warming our climate, and one simulation, a counterfactual one, without,” said Vavrus. “By comparing those two simulations, scientists can actually quantify how much more likely a certain extreme weather event was, or less likely, due to climate change.”

So while the higher than average temperatures we’ve been experiencing this winter are because of El Nino, Vavrus says Wisconsin has also been experiencing warmer winters due to climate change, with the last 25 years generally well above normal compared with previous years.

It’s led the Upper Midwest and Northern Plains having their warmest December on record in 2023.

“Wisconsin not only had its warmest December on record, just now but it was the first time that the statewide average temperature in the month was above freezing slightly above 32,” said Vavrus.

It’s not just Wisconsin experiencing a warm 2023. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says, “2023 was the world’s warmest year on record, by far.”

Climate Central

As we’ve seen this winter, this has impacts on winter recreation and the tourism-driven industry that depends on it.

It also has negative impacts on the environment.

Cold weather helps keep pests like mosquitos in check, fewer days of ice coverage on lakes can impact cold water species, and wildlife that’s adapted to winter could be more susceptible to predators.

“One good example is the snowshoe hare which changes its color from dark to white during the winter. It does that because it's an adaptation to the expectation that there will be snow cover,” said Vavrus.

A question that may be on a lot of people’s minds is, ‘Is this what we can expect from winter’s going forward?’

Vavrus says yes and no.

Wisconsin winters are expected to keep getting warmer because of climate change, but outside of El Nino years Vavrus says we should see more precipitation.

“We fully expect that a warmer atmosphere holding more water vapor can produce heavier rainfalls,” he said. That’s why climatologists warn the Midwest can expect more extreme flooding in the future.

For the winter, the variability in that is if the temperatures stay cool enough to create snow or will that precipitation come as rain or something in between.

“But even if we got the same amount of snowfall in the future, if it's warmer, that means that that snowpack has less ability to persist. So we would expect more on again/off again snowpacks, at least in southern Wisconsin, where it's less typical. In the far northern part of the state where snowfall is generally more sustained during the winter, there, I would expect it might take a little longer to go to these melt offs and then recharges of snowpack during the winter,” said Vavrus.

While everyone from snowmobilers to the restaurants and lodges that depend on their traffic are hoping for more snow soon to save this winter, Vavrus’ best advice is be ready to adapt.

“I think that communities need to be prepared for a different kind of winter in the future. That means adapting,” said Vavrus.

Katie Thoresen is WXPR's News Director/Vice President.
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